In 2004, Micky McIlroy was a young bartender in Belfast, Ireland. He was passionate to learn everything he could about his trade. He was reading bar books and researching the best bars in the world. Sasha Petraske‘s Milk & Honey kept coming up. Micky did the obvious thing. He boarded a flight to New York, found Milk & Honey and introduced himself to Sasha. The Irish citizen then asked for a job.
Recently, The Canadian Professional Bartenders Association (BC Chapter) and Brown-Forman teamed up to bring Micky McIlroy and Sam Ross to Vancouver to do an Attaboy pop-up at the seminal Keefer Bar.
Moving from Belfast to New York was a bold decision.
I lived in Belfast, Ireland until I was 22. When I left in 2004 there was nothing there, in terms of world-class cocktails. Obviously the Merchant Hotel has been influential since then.
What are you up to these days?
You can still always find (Attaboy Partner/Bartender) Sam Ross and me behind the bar at Attaboy (134 Eldridge St, New York) four days a week. I have to attend to the business side, and orders, so my days start way earlier than they used to.
I don’t want to say too much until everything is signed and sealed but Attaboy Nashville is a thing we are working on (knocks on wood). Nashville is an area of the world we love, and for us to open a bar in another city, it’s a bit of a curveball. It’s not L.A. or Paris. That excites me. I mean, one day a bar in a city like London would be great, too. But as a second location, Nashville is really cool. Very friendly, great music, great food and great drinks, too.
So would the Nashville venue be similar in size to the 35 seat Attaboy in New York, or will it be bigger and incorporate a food concept, as well?
It will be slightly larger. Not huge. It will be an Attaboy. We’ll still do juices ‘on-call’ and the carved ice program. I’m sure we’ll have food, legally we have to.
What would you tell a younger bartender is the most important bar in the world to visit, right now?
Haha, that’s a big question. I would say The American Bar at The Savoy, London. When I’m in London I go there pretty much every day. It is one of the rooms of the world and just to be there is a treat. So much history. So iconic. It’s fucking gorgeous. Go have a martini.
You’ve mentioned that a dirty martini is your guilty pleasure.
Yeah, everything in it. All the juices, all the garnishes. Olives and onions, the more the merrier, served in a big glass.
Where do you see cocktail culture going in the next year?
What I would like to see are more bars with good fruits, good juices, good gins and whiskies. Which is happening.
Is there a classic cocktail you are tired of making?
Yeah, the Penicillin.
What are your least favorite cocktail trends?
Pretentious bars. Somebody has to tell these folks to relax a little.
Reservations for bars. Milk & Honey did that. But we were in a bad neighborhood. We took reservations because we thought about the safety of guests waiting around. We only wanted them to come to our destination bar if we were sure we could accommodate them.
Bartenders moving up to bar ownership after only a couple of years bartending.
Hidden bars are played out.
Dressing up. If you wanna wear a vest and suspenders – by all means do. I wore that five days a week for 8 years so then I was done with it. When Attaboy opened, we said, ‘no more arm garters’.
Do you think MIA will retire, like she keeps saying?
I hope so. She hasn’t come out with anything mind-blowing in a while.
The more serious question would be, how important do you think music is to a bar?
Huge. If a bar is too bright or if they play music that isn’t good or at the wrong volume, I’m not relaxing – I’m leaving. Phil Collins!? I’m outta here.
I tell our staff to watch out for lighting, music and candles. I hate to see a candle that’s out.
A bunch of New York bars just published drink books, notably Dead Rabbit and Nomad, yet few bars have made as many iconic drinks as you. When are you going to publish your book?
When? I don’t know, but I would love to. I think it would be hard work but a lot of fun. It would be a good way to showcase what we do for the people who don’t have a chance to come to see us in the bar. The Craft Of The Cocktail (Dale Degroff) was one of my first books, in Belfast. The Savoy Cocktail Book (Harry Craddock) was very influential. I continue to look at it for inspiration. I’ve read the Savoy a thousand times. I think it’s an essential read.
What’s you current drink obsession?
The Bamboo cocktail. Sherry drinks. People started asking for the Bamboo, and I was like, what the fuck is in this drink? (Recipe below) It has no juice, all booze but it’s nice and easy to drink. It’s very session-able.
In the three years Attaboy has been open you’ve achieved full staff retention. What’s the mantra that keeps staff there?
It’s a good team. We are all very close. It’s a great bar and its good fun. The drinks, I feel, are the best around. We created an environment where they want to be there. On Saturday’s you can find Sam Ross and I there, even as owners, bartending because it’s good fun. We take care of staff, we allow vacations and in turn they step up. While we are in Vancouver they are working the bar and placing orders. We trust them.
What did Sasha Petraske mean to you and what did his loss mean to you?
It’s hard to talk about it (There’s a perceptible stutter in McIlroy’s voice) It’s only been three months. He was a boss and a best friend and I lost that. I wouldn’t have anything today if he hadn’t taken a risk on me. In 2004, he was like, ‘Yeah, have a job’. I wouldn’t have a bar. I wouldn’t have this career. He was a huge figure, for me. It was very hard for Sam, too.
So what’s the thing you take forward to honor Sasha with?
We now hold and carry his flag of, “Good drinks. Good service.” I feel like he passed that torch to us. He was really happy that we opened Attaboy in the space where Milk & Honey first stood. That was his room and he was the chief. That’s what I still called him. It makes that room all the more special.